The various phenotypes show characteristics of the ten different chicken breeds that were crossed into this generation of the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project / recognisable traits from Belgium, France, Great Britain, the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, Mexico, Thailand, Brazil and Turkey.
In the mid-19th century, Spaniards brought different kinds of Asian fowl to Havana (Cuba), originating from the Philippines; the Cubans first crossed the Asian species with each other and then with chickens of European origin / bred far from any scientific oversight for a threefold purpose: meat, eggs and cockfighting / officially recognised in 1935 by the Cuban National Poultry Association and in 1939 by its U.S. counterpart / its name honours the Republic of Cuba, where the species was bred and refined.
In 2007, Vanmechelen undertook a three-week expedition throughout Cuba in search of the Cubalaya. He failed to track down a pure-bred specimen. Back home, he discovered that the only place where he could still find some was the United States. In the city of Poughkeepsie, near New York City, he found the largest known population of Cubalayas. He got permission to buy some eggs and went home to start breeding and crossing.
Birthplace of the first chicks
Meeuwen-Gruitrode, on Koen Vanmechelen's home farm
Breaking the Cage – The art of Koen Vanmechelen
Victoria and Albert Museum, Arts & Business, Londen (GB), 2008
The unexpected, the appeal of the chicken
Serendipity at work...
The Cuban Cubalaya chicken is an endangered species: there are hardly any pure-bred specimens left. Back home after his expedition (see above), Koen Vanmechelen built a Cubalaya breeding centre, consisting of various aviaries. These now house one of the few populations of pure-bred Cubalayas left in the world.
Striking physical characteristics of the Mechelse Cubalaya: they’re very strong chickens, and have great diversity in combs.
At about the same time that Obama announced that the borders between his country and Cuba would reopen (after a trade embargo that lasted 55 years), preparations were made in Belgium for Koen Vanmechelen's participation in the Biennial of Havana (Cuba). Together with the Arenas de Evolución, he organised not just many exchanges between scientists from all over the world (cross-pollination!) but also the ‘re-introduction’ of the Cubalaya to its country of origin. Cuba opened its borders for the animals and breeding boxes.
These coincidences also cast a special light on one of the episodes of the expedition in Cuba, in which the artist had to seek refuge from a hurricane in Pinar del Río and, for lack of signposts, took a Cuban man in his vehicle to guide him. As the man got in the car, he looked at the artist, exclaiming: “You’re the chicken man! I saw you on TV!” In 2007, Cuba’s borders were still closed. And yet this man had seen a programme on ARTE about Vanmechelen. The fact that not much later he was picked up by Vanmechelen himself, and in his own country… is that really a coincidence?